What's Black, White & Scanned All Over? Quick Response Codes for Camera Phones

Using your camera phone as a barcode scanner to get quick access to Web-based information while mobile is a slightly odd notion perhaps, but it's an idea whose time may finally have come.

In the U.S., that is - its time came a few years ago in Japan.

Hundreds of thousands of Japanese consumers routinely point their cameras at QR or quick response codes printed on billboards, movie posters, magazine pages, bus shelters, buildings - just about anywhere - to go instantly to a mobile Web page with more information about the advertised product or event or to see a bus or train schedule.

It saves thumb-typing long URLs - and it's kind of cool in the tech-nerdy way the Japanese seem to like.

Now ScanBuy Inc., a U.S. firm, has launched the first major trial of this technology in North America.

Two ScanBuy customers in San Francisco, CitySearch magazine and Antenna Audio, are posting codes in restaurant windows and at tourist attractions. Users who download and install the ScanLife software on their phones can point the camera at a code, click one button and instantly be taken to a Web page with reviews of the restaurant or information, including streaming audio clips, about the attraction.

The two-dimensional (2D) codes and the reader software ScanBuy deployed in San Francisco in March are a little different from the technology that has been used in Japan since 2004. But more importantly, ScanBuy is proposing quite a different business model.

"The Japanese [experience] proves that consumers love this and that the technology works," says the company's CEO Jonathan Bulkeley. "It's just a question now of what the business model is going to be."

That's in fact only one of many questions around the technology. The most crucial, perhaps is can it be transplanted from the rarified atmosphere of the Japanese market?

In a multi-part series beginning with this article, we'll look at how mobile 2D barcoding works, why it evolved first and differently in Japan, and where it's likely to go next.

But first a little context.

The notion of using a cell phone to read bar codes is arguably part of a larger trend to using mobile devices for more, and more disparate, applications, and in particular, using them as a kind of universal interface between digital and physical or analog worlds.

Michael Liard, research director for RFID at Allied Business Intelligence Inc. (ABI Research), says 2D barcoding should be considered in the same context as parallel and possibly competing technologies such as near-field communications (NFC).

NFC, a wireless radio technology now being built into some mobile devices, uses the ISM band (13.56 MHz) to instantly connect devices at speeds between 106 and 424 Kbps over very short distances. Its most important application may be enabling RFID-based (radio frequency identification) applications such as contactless payment.

There are already areas of overlap between NFC and 2D barcoding, Liard points out. Companies in Japan, for example, have experimented with putting NFC tags on movie posters.

A consumer could wave an NFC-capable mobile device near a poster and the data received from the tag would automatically point their mobile browser to a Web page with information about the movie - or enable a transaction to purchase a ticket.

"Ultimately, what's the legacy going to be?" Liard wonders. "Is it going to be NFC, is it going to be 2D barcodes?"

He believes it may be only one or the other, not both. In markets outside Japan and Korea where neither has had much impact, it's pretty much a "blank slate," Liard says. It could go either way.

But barcoding itself is not a single uniform technology or set of capabilities. Standard 1D barcoding - more about the difference between 1D and 2D barcodes in a moment - is also on the table. Or rather, it's still on the table.

As far back as the late 1990s, Digital Convergence, now defunct, marketed a device called the CueCat, a low-cost scanner for reading standard 1D or UPC barcodes. It plugged into a computer and let users scan barcodes on magazine ads to take them directly to a Web site with more information about the advertised product.

It was the same notion of automating Web browsing, just not in the mobile environment.

Fast forward to 2008.

Ecrio Inc., a Silicon Valley company, is developing products and business models for using standard 1D barcodes in consumer advertising and retailing in the mobile space. But Ecrio is not so much interested in using mobile devices to read barcodes as to send them.

The idea is that consumers can go to a Web site and download a 1D UPC code to their device. The code is in effect an electronic coupon. At the point of sale, they aim their mobile device at the retailer's barcode scanner, press a button and it emits the code using IR or some other light source.

What's the point? It saves consumers carrying around clips of coupons - and retailers processing them. And it gives advertisers new ways to help consumers make the jump from the Web to buying decisions in the physical world.

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